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The Eucharist and Excommunication as a Punishment in the Early Church

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Having abrogated the law of Moses as an hindrance to conversion of gentiles to the new universal Judaism of Christianity, the bishops quickly had to impose a plethora of new rules to keep their burgeoning congregations in order. The converts had to remain “in communion” with the church, and so partaking of the Eucharist was obligatory.

From very early in gentile Christianity, the new Christians had to bring their children into the church for the holy communion of the Eucharist—even infants! The administration of the Eucharist to children continued in France, according to Bingham’s Antiquities of the Christian Church, until the twelfth century. Adults were required to receive it every day, though it declined to four times a week in some churches and then declined continually until the Middle Ages, when so many churches were empty that Christians were ordered to take communion at least once a year.

The early pressure to take the Eucharist was compelling because clergy taught that it was essential to eternal life. It was held in great reverence, and the bishops had complete power over who would receive it, giving them immense control over the Christian slaves of God. Worshippers were not allowed to approach the Eucharistic table unless suitably physically and morally pure and expiated of sin by penance.

Again, the bishops had absolute authority over the magnitude of the sin and its punishment. Examples were prolonged absence from church, unchastity, prostitution, adultery, becoming a gladiator or actor, betrayal of Christians to the authorities, pederasty, homosexuality. Note how many sins were sexual in nature, and had little to do with Christ’s moral concerns. Abstention from sexual activity, a personal choice for Essenes, except for those of the highest orders, was made obligatory for gentile Christians. Because of the presumed imminence of the End, Jesus, John and their successors, had had to initiate many who came to them hoping to join God’s coming Kingdom without any detailed teaching of Essene practices. The later bishops, especially the gentiles ones misled by Paul, imagined the celibacy of the senior Essenes had to be followed by everyone.

The punishment varied according to the seriousness of the sin, as judged by the bishop. A short period of withdrawal from the Eucharist was the minimum. As the bishop judged the sin as more and more serious, the period of denial of the Eucharist increased to years and then up to the sinner’s whole life! There was worse! The sin could merit denial of the communion for the whole of eternity—excommunication. These punishments seem to have derived from the punishments of the Essene sectaries. Moreover, during the period of penance, when the Eucharist was denied to the errant Christian, the penitent was obliged to abstain from all sexual relationships, even with their spouse, and, indeed, any other pleasure. Every spare minute was to be spent doing religious exercises.

At the end of the period of penance, the sinner had to appear before the congregation dressed in sackcloth, with a shaven head, and covered in ashes. They had to fall in submission, like a Moslem, before the bishop, openly confess their sins and publicly beg for absolution.

Excommunication meant denial of all Christian sacraments, and the severance of all communication with any Christian—exactly what the errant Essene had to suffer. For them it meant death, for they had to eat grass, as they could not accept any unsanctified food such as that offered by anyone not in the order.

The control exercised by the bishops over their flocks amounted to religious terrorism and despotism. Bishops could permit or deny what Christians were led to believe were rites essential to their salvation. It certainly impressed upon Christian converts the enormity of the consequences of being immoral—the conviction that eternal retribution would follow—but few of the sins had anything to do with what Christ taught as reasons for damnation, like failing to love others, or hoarding wealth. And it granted to certain men, the clergy, who were in general no less sinners than other human beings, a fascistic authority that led the Church itself into gross sins and unforgiveable crimes.

Sources: Lecky, History of European Morals

Written by mikemagee

1 June, 2011 at 11:14 pm

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